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  • Writer's pictureValinda

Unraveling the Eco-Friendly Truth: Spandex vs Elastane vs Lycra

Updated: Mar 12

In a world where sustainability takes center stage, the fashion and textile industries face a critical challenge: balancing innovation with environmental responsibility. Enter spandex, the beloved stretchy fabric that adorns our workout gear, fashion ensembles, and everyday attire. Often hailed for its comfort and flexibility, spandex has quietly navigated conversations about its eco-friendliness. Is this miracle fabric truly as sustainable as it is versatile? Let's peel back the layers of spandex's environmental impact to discover whether this stretchy superhero aligns with our planet's needs or warrants a closer, more critical inspection. Join us on a journey through the intricate weave of spandex's sustainability, as we uncover its eco-friendly credentials and explore the landscape of its environmental footprint.

Spandex vs Elastane vs Lycra

What is Spandex

Spandex, also known as Elastane or Lycra, is a synthetic fiber renowned for its exceptional elasticity and flexibility. Spandex is a man-made fiber, a blend of about 85% polyurethane (PU) and polyethylene glycol

Developed in the late 1950s by chemists Joseph Shivers and colleagues at DuPont, spandex—initially named as "Fiber K"—was a breakthrough in textile innovation. It emerged as a response to the need for a stretchier, more resilient alternative to rubber. The material was officially branded as Lycra by DuPont in the 1960s, marking the beginning of its commercialization.

Spandex is incredibly stretchable, and capable of expanding up to 500% without losing its original shape. This remarkable attribute makes it a staple in various industries, especially fashion and sportswear, providing unparalleled comfort and mobility. However, its production, primarily derived from non-renewable resources and involving energy-intensive processes, raises concerns about its environmental impact. Balancing its exceptional performance with eco-friendliness remains a critical aspect in the conversation surrounding spandex.


What makes Spandex Unique

Spandex stands as a unique marvel in the textile world due to its exceptional elasticity and versatility. What truly sets spandex apart is its unparalleled stretchiness, capable of expanding up to five times its original length without losing shape or structure. This extraordinary elasticity, stemming from its molecular composition, grants unparalleled freedom of movement, making it a staple in activewear, form-fitting clothing, and various applications requiring flexibility. Its ability to seamlessly blend with other fabrics enhances their stretch and comfort, elevating the performance of garments. Moreover, spandex boasts remarkable durability, resilience against wear and tear, and quick-drying properties, contributing to its widespread use in diverse industries, from sports and fashion to medical and industrial applications. The distinctive combination of stretch, durability, and adaptability positions spandex as an indispensable component in modern textile innovation.

molecular structure of spandex

Applications of Spandex

Spandex, renowned for its remarkable stretch and recovery properties, finds an extensive array of applications across diverse industries:

  • Fashion: Spandex has revolutionized the fashion industry, enabling the creation of form-fitting and body-hugging garments. It's a staple in the creation of leggings, swimsuits, and activewear, offering not only style but also exceptional comfort and flexibility.

  • Athletic and Sports Apparel: In sports and athleisure, spandex plays a pivotal role. It provides athletes with the freedom of movement crucial for optimal performance. Compression garments, yoga pants, cycling jerseys, and sports bras are just a few examples where spandex is instrumental in offering flexibility, moisture-wicking properties, and support.

  • Dance and Performance Wear: Spandex is a go-to fabric in dance and performance wear due to its ability to move with the body. Costumes for dancers, acrobats, and performers often utilize spandex for its flexibility and form-fitting properties, allowing for unrestricted movement during performances.

  • Undergarments and Shapewear: Its ability to provide comfortable yet supportive fit makes spandex an ideal material for undergarments and shapewear. It offers both flexibility and shaping, catering to diverse body types and providing a seamless look under clothing.

  • Medical Applications: Its stretchability and durability make spandex invaluable in medical settings. It's used in therapeutic garments like compression stockings, braces, and bandages, providing support and aiding in muscle recovery. Its ability to conform to different body shapes is particularly beneficial in medical garments.

  • Industrial Use: Spandex's versatility extends to industrial applications. It's used in automobile upholstery, providing both comfort and durability. Additionally, it's incorporated into protective gear and equipment where flexibility and resilience are crucial, showcasing its adaptability beyond traditional textile applications.

The applications of spandex transcend traditional boundaries, showcasing its versatility and adaptability in various functional contexts, from enhancing athletic performance to offering comfort and support in medical and industrial settings, and even influencing fashion trends and daily wear.


What is the difference between Spandex and Elastane and Lycra

Elastane and Spandex and Lycra are often used interchangeably, but they essentially refer to the same synthetic fiber known for its exceptional stretch and elasticity. The primary difference lies in their regional naming conventions. In Europe and most of the world, the term "elastane" is used to describe this fiber, while in the United States, it's referred to as "spandex." Functionally and chemically, there's no disparity between the three; they are both made from polyurethane-polyurea copolymer. Whether labeled as lycra, elastane or spandex, these fibers serve the same purpose, providing stretch, comfort, and flexibility to a wide array of clothing and textile products.

Spandex vs Elastane vs Lycra

How is Spandex Made

Spandex manufacturing facilities are predominantly located in China. Historically, the USA was a primary hub for producing these fabrics, but due to lower labor costs, the production of various fabric types, including spandex, has gradually shifted to China in recent years.

Nearly 95% of all the spandex worldwide now undergoes a technique known as solution dry spinning, a critical engineering advancement we'll explore in detail. To begin the manufacturing process of spandex fabric, a component called macro glycol gets mixed with a di-iso-cyanide monomer under specific temperature and pressure conditions. When applied correctly, this mixture yields a product known as a prepolymer, pivotal for the subsequent stages. Once formed, the prepolymer interacts with di-amine acid, initiating a chemical reaction known as chain extrusion. 

The textile and clothing industries, among the fastest-growing sectors employing millions, heavily rely on toxic chemicals for processing textiles, contributing to increased environmental pollution and public concern.

The resulting material becomes highly viscous, necessitating dilution with a solvent before moving to the next stage. The thinned prepolymer is loaded into a machine known as a fiber manufacturing or tubular spinning cell. Inside this apparatus resides a component called a spinneret, containing numerous tiny openings. As the fiber manufacturing cell rotates, it propels the prepolymer solution through these apertures, forming threads of fabric. These threads initially exist in a liquid state upon emerging from the spinneret and are then subjected to heated solvent gas and nitrogen to condense them into a solid state.

These solid fibers are extruded from the tubular spinning cell and, upon exposure to compressed air, transform into elongated strands. This compressed air allows for the creation of threads in various sizes. Finally, the spandex fiber undergoes immersion in a finishing agent containing magnesium stearate or a similar substance. Once loaded onto a reel, it's ready for weaving into fabric.


Is Spandex Toxic

Spandex, also known as elastane, is generally not considered toxic to wear. The material itself is chemically inert and stable under normal conditions, posing no inherent toxicity risks to human health. However, concerns may arise during the production process due to the chemicals used in manufacturing spandex fibers. During the manufacturing process, spandex fibers involve dissolving a linear, soluble polyurethane in potent solvents like Di Methyl Formamide (DMF), dimethyl acetamide, or dimethyl sulfoxide. Prolonged skin contact with these fibers could potentially trigger skin allergies due to the chemicals used. Workers in the spandex industry have reported occupational health concerns. Additionally, the inability of spandex to absorb sweat might lead to the release of chemicals from dyes and formaldehyde in the fabric, potentially causing allergic reactions like contact dermatitis. Extended wear of spandex can create a conducive environment for various bacterial infections, such as folliculitis and impetigo, due to its moisture-retaining properties.


Is Spandex Eco-Friendly

The eco-friendliness of spandex, also known as elastane, is a topic of concern within the textile industry. The MADE-BY Benchmark for Fibers, initially published in 2009 and periodically updated since, provides a comprehensive assessment of various fibers based on their environmental impact. 

table with how eco-friendly fabrics are

Among its classifications, spandex falls under Class E, which comprises fibers considered less eco-friendly. This category includes viscose (including bamboo-derived), conventional cotton, nylon, rayon, elastane (spandex), and wool. The assessment places spandex among materials with higher environmental footprints due to factors like the manufacturing process involving potent chemicals and its non-biodegradable nature. In contrast, Class A fibers, regarded as the most sustainable, encompass mechanically recycled polyester and nylon, organic flax, hemp, and recycled cotton and wool. While spandex remains valuable for its stretch and durability, its environmental impact positions it among fibers requiring further innovations for sustainability.


Spandex poses challenges in terms of eco-friendliness due to several reasons:

  • Chemical Production Process: Spandex production involves the use of various chemicals, including solvents like Di Methyl Formamide (DMF) or dimethyl sulfoxide, which are potent and potentially harmful to humans and the environment if not handled and disposed of properly.

  • Non-Biodegradable Nature: Spandex fibers are not easily biodegradable, contributing to environmental waste when disposed of in landfills. This inability to break down naturally prolongs their presence in the environment, exacerbating waste management issues.

  • Energy Intensive Manufacturing: The production of spandex requires significant energy consumption, contributing to carbon emissions and environmental impact.

  • Microfiber Pollution: When washed, spandex fabrics release microfibers, contributing to microplastic pollution in water bodies, potentially harming aquatic life.

These factors collectively contribute to spandex being categorized as less eco-friendly compared to other fibers, prompting a need for innovations in its production, recycling, and disposal methods to mitigate its environmental impact.


How to Dispose of Spandex

In a world teetering on the brink of oversaturated landfills, altering our disposal habits has become an urgent necessity. Here's a rundown of effective ways to handle your old spandex products.


Upcycling

Traditional recycling isn't an option for your retired spandex garments so, consider the art of creative upcycling. Upcycling, a fusion of "upgrade" and "recycling," involves transforming discarded items into new, valuable materials. For instance, those retired leggings can birth kids clothes, personalized headbands or cuddly toys. Feeling short on creativity? Fear not—armed with a trusty hot glue gun, possibilities abound. A lamp, scissors, an old legging, and a dash of imagination can craft a new lampshade from fabric scraps. Remember, in upcycling, the only limit is your imagination.

Spandex vs Elastane vs Lycra

Donation

Should your spandex pieces remain unscathed or lightly worn, think about donating them. Places like Goodwill, The Salvation Army, Diabetes Canada donation bins, shelters such as Sanctuary, or nonprofits like New Circles eagerly accept such donations, ensuring your garments find new life with someone who truly values them. Thrifting not only reduces textile waste but also brings joy to treasure hunters seeking unique finds. Additionally, if your spandex pieces are in excellent condition and you're eyeing some extra cash, local thrift stores offer an avenue for resale.


Brand Take-Back Programs

Certain brands champion take-back programs, a thoughtful initiative aimed at collecting used products for reintegration into their production cycle. Brands like Patagonia and The North Face spearhead such efforts. Patagonia, for instance, invites customers to return their used Patagonia spandex items to their stores or via mail, earning WornWear store credit in return. The North Face goes a step further by accepting items from any brand, rewarding contributors with coupons upon drop-off at their participating stores. These programs not only reduce waste but also incentivize responsible disposal practices.


Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Spandex

If spandex fabric raises environmental concerns, what are the alternatives? Fear not! There are a few promising options to explore for a sustainable stretch. Let's dive into some contenders for eco-conscious elasticity.


Eco LYCRA® T400®

LYCRA, a longstanding favorite among consumers, has introduced Eco LYCRA® T400®, signaling a move toward sustainability. This fiber comprises about 68% recycled plastics sourced from diverted landfill materials and renewable bio-based resources, all while retaining the classic comfort and shape-holding characteristics of traditional Lycra. Although not entirely composed of recycled materials, it marks a commendable eco-friendly stride. Brands like Esprit have already adopted this fiber for their garments, showcasing promising results.


DuPont™ Sorona®

Despite any negative connotations linked to names with the "Rona" suffix, Sorona® by DuPont™ stands out as a sustainable exception. This partially plant-based fiber, consisting of 37% Industrial Dent Corn and polyester, is recyclable in standard polyester recycling streams. Similar to Eco LYCRA® T400®, Sorona® isn't entirely eco-friendly due to its polyester content, yet it represents a notable advancement. Although whether it will overtake spandex remains uncertain, several renowned brands like Timberland and The North Face have already embraced Sorona®, elevating it as a strong alternative.

Spandex vs Elastane vs Lycra

ECONYL

Econyl, a revolutionary material in the realm of sustainable fashion, stands as a beacon of innovation in the textile industry. Crafted from regenerated nylon, Econyl represents a paradigm shift towards eco-consciousness by repurposing discarded materials like fishing nets, fabric scraps, and industrial plastic into a high-quality, versatile fabric. This closed-loop recycling process not only diverts waste from landfills and oceans but also significantly reduces the carbon footprint associated with traditional nylon production. Econyl embodies durability and performance, offering properties akin to virgin nylon while championing environmental sustainability. Its applications span various sectors, from fashion and swimwear to interior design and accessories, marking a significant stride towards a more circular and responsible approach within the fashion landscape. As consumers increasingly seek sustainable alternatives, Econyl emerges as a frontrunner, embodying both style and environmental stewardship.


Blended Spandex

While some clothing brands use spandex in less eco-conscious ways, others opt for responsible practices. Some brands take a conscientious route by blending spandex with sustainable fabrics such as organic cotton, Lyocell, or hemp, ensuring that their garments contain less than 10% spandex. This percentage aligns with the Global Organic Textile Standard's criteria for organic fibers containing spandex. Some brands incorporate recycled polyester, organic cotton, and Lenzing Lyocell, maintaining spandex at 10% or lower in their clothing. These approaches showcase a commendable commitment to eco-friendliness.


Brands that use Recycled Spandex

In recent years, a growing trend has emerged in the fashion industry: the utilization of recycled materials to create more sustainable and eco-friendly clothing. Among these efforts, several brands have embraced the concept of recycled spandex, demonstrating a commitment to both innovation and environmental responsibility.


Adidas by Stella McCartney

Adidas by Stella McCartney stands as a pioneering force in sustainable fashion, exemplifying a commitment to eco-conscious practices. A notable aspect of their approach lies in the innovative use of recycled spandex in their clothing lines. Collaborating with Stella McCartney, Adidas integrates recycled spandex into their athletic wear, blending style, performance, and sustainability seamlessly. This initiative not only reduces the strain on virgin resources but also addresses the challenges associated with spandex's environmental impact. By harnessing recycled materials, this partnership sets a remarkable standard in the fashion industry, illustrating that high-performance sportswear can coexist harmoniously with eco-friendly principles.

adidas - Spandex vs Elastane vs Lycra

Patagonia

Patagonia stands as a beacon of sustainability within the apparel industry, championing eco-conscious practices. Among their innovative approaches, Patagonia integrates recycled spandex into their clothing lines, showcasing their commitment to reducing environmental impact. By utilizing recycled spandex, sourced from diverted materials like fishing nets and discarded fabrics, Patagonia not only lessens waste but also demonstrates a dedication to circularity. This forward-thinking approach aligns with their ethos of responsible production, offering customers high-performance garments that prioritize both durability and environmental stewardship. Patagonia's utilization of recycled spandex serves as a testament to their ongoing efforts in reshaping the fashion industry toward a more sustainable future.

patagonia - Spandex vs Elastane vs Lycra


Mara Hofman Swimwear

Mara Hoffman's swimwear collection, characterized by its vibrant designs and ethical focus, stands at the forefront of sustainable fashion with its innovative use of recycled polyester. Embracing a commitment to environmental responsibility, Hoffman integrates recycled polyester into her swimwear line, transforming discarded plastic materials into stunning, high-quality garments. By utilizing recycled polyester, derived from post-consumer waste such as plastic bottles and other sources, her brand significantly reduces its reliance on virgin materials and minimizes its environmental impact. This approach not only mitigates the accumulation of plastic in landfills and oceans but also demonstrates the potential for fashion to be both aesthetically captivating and environmentally conscientious. Hoffman's swimwear, crafted with recycled polyester, not only embodies her signature style but also serves as a testament to her dedication to sustainable practices within the fashion industry, inspiring a more conscious approach to swimwear fashion.

mara hoffman - Spandex vs Elastane vs Lycra

Outerknown

Outerknown stands out as a beacon of sustainable fashion, showcasing a commitment to environmental consciousness by incorporating recycled polyester into their clothing lines. Embracing innovation and eco-friendly practices, Outerknown harnesses recycled materials, including spandex, to craft stylish and durable garments. By repurposing discarded spandex, they reduce waste and minimize the strain on the environment while maintaining the performance and quality expected from this versatile fabric. This conscious choice reflects their dedication to redefining fashion's future, inspiring a shift towards a more sustainable and responsible industry.

outerknown - Spandex vs Elastane vs Lycra


Me Undies

MeUndies, a trailblazer in the realm of sustainable fashion, stands out for its innovative approach by incorporating recycled synthetic materials in their garments. Their commitment to eco-consciousness extends beyond just aesthetics; it's embedded in their very fabric. By using recycled polyester in their garments, MeUndies not only champions comfort and style but also demonstrates a dedication to reducing environmental impact. This choice showcases their forward-thinking approach, blending cutting-edge design with a genuine commitment to sustainability, setting a noteworthy example within the fashion industry.

me undies - Spandex vs Elastane vs Lycra

Avoid Spandex

In this era of heightened environmental awareness, conscious consumers like us are scrutinizing everything we eat, use, and wear to ensure sustainability. If you walk into any activewear store and glance at the label of stretchy apparel, spandex will likely make an appearance. Spandex has indeed solidified its place in the textile industry but so has the imperative need to safeguard our environment. While relatively better environmentally speaking, spandex falls short of being truly eco-friendly. Its manufacturing involves harmful chemicals, it lacks biodegradability or compostability, and recycling it proves challenging. For those with spandex items, consider donation, take-back programs, or maximizing their use through DIY projects before disposal.

The journey toward reducing spandex's stronghold or its eventual disappearance from the fashion industry is ongoing. Meanwhile, let's exercise our control by curbing our reliance on elastane materials and exploring eco-friendly alternatives, thereby safeguarding our planet from the textile industry's adverse impacts.


While spandex offers unparalleled stretch and flexibility in our clothing, its eco-friendliness remains a contentious topic. Understanding the complexities of its production, its limitations in recycling, and its environmental impact prompts us to rethink our choices. While the path to a completely eco-friendly spandex might be long, our awareness and efforts in exploring sustainable alternatives and responsible disposal methods play a pivotal role in minimizing the environmental footprint of our fashion choices. As we stride towards a more sustainable future, it's crucial to balance our love for comfort and performance with a commitment to preserving our planet. Each step we take in making informed decisions contributes to a fashion industry that's not just stylish but also environmentally responsible.

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